This post is part of my series of Staycation travel ideas. To read more like this, click here.

One of the last carefree things I did before the pandemic was take a walk through a back alley.

My friend Sarah was in from out of town and had stayed over at my place, back when you could have friends from out of town visit your place. WHO had just declared a global pandemic and we both knew that Toronto, like cities in Europe, would soon be shutting down. We decided to walk down to the lake to talk about it, and how we would cope.

On Queen Street West, shops were all still open, with plenty of pedestrians out and about. But the real reason we ducked into the alley wasn’t fear of the virus. I wanted to show her the art.

Where to see unique street art in Parkdale?

I live in Parkdale, and my neighbourhood is filled with street art. Full-size community murals cover the sides of many businesses; the largest graffiti wall in the country greets train commuters that pass through here. But my faves are a bit more hidden.

Street art murals by women in Parkdale, Toronto

Just north of Queen, between Lansdowne and MacDonnell, is a series of vibrant murals with feminist themes. Images of motherhood, sisterhood, divine womanly bodies and shapes. That’s where I took Sarah. She’s a visual artist too. We stopped to look, to talk about the art, to take photos. It felt like going to an art exhibition. Neither of us knew it would be the last one we’d visit for a while.  

Street art mural by Bareket Kezwer part of Women Paint TO project in Parkdale Toronto
Art by Bareket Kezwer

Street art by women near Queen and Landsdowne

This particular collection is called Women Paint TO, a project organized by women street artists back in 2017. I noticed it a while back, stopped by recognizing the work of Emily May Rose. Her racoon characters are kind of like a Toronto version of Banksy’s rats, appearing all over the city, commenting on local events. Here, she’s painted a variety of young women in salmon, mint and white colours. It’s straight-up pretty.

Looking for more of Toronto’s best street art? Read my guide the street art of Little Portugal

Taking a closer look at the dozen or so other murals in the alley, I appreciated the bold feminine point of view — a rarity in street art, still. The showpiece is the large painting of an Indigenous mother by artists Aura and Chief Lady Bird.

A few kms away in the heart of Queen West’s shopping district, Graffiti Alley attracts tourists from around the world. But this felt like a private show for Parkdalians. It’s worth travelling to our neighbourhood.

Mural of women's faces by Emily May Rose, part of Women Paint TO street art project in Parkdale Toronto
Art by Emily May Rose

I’ll acknowledge here that not everyone is comfortable walking alone in alleys, at the best of times. And these are not the best of times.

Women especially have been trained to avoid deserted routes where nobody can see you, for good reason. And it would be irresponsible for me to promote these alleys without noting the alarming increase in harassment and assault on women around here this summer. (Details here.) No incidents have been reported happening in these locations. But you may wish to bring a friend or two, and be extra mindful of your surroundings.

How to have a safe art walk in Parkdale

For me personally, back alleys have become my safe zone during this pandemic. When the city went into lockdown back in March, and we were told to go out only for essentials, my essential daily exercise became walks through the alleys. Sure, the streets around here were mostly empty. But the alleys were completely empty.

It was during those early months, when Queen Street was filling with boarded up storefronts and sad COVID closure signs, that I discovered the alleys were covered in life-affirming art.

Ice cream monster street art mural by BuffMonster on a garage door in Parkdale, Toronto
Art by BuffMonster spotted on Milky Way

Sometimes, I looked up the artist tag and discovered that piece was created by someone famous. Like NYC’s BuffMonster, who has exhibited globally but also left his signature ice cream creature on a garage door tucked on Milky Way, which runs just off Queen between Dufferin and Cowan. That entire laneway is covered in world-class art, actually. It also boasts one of my favourite Parkdale pieces: the happy vegetables on the side of a community garden.

Street art of happy vegetables on a community garden fence in Parkdale, Toronto

In 2020, when so many of us miss arts and culture and travel, a street art walk is a cheap and easy way to play tourist in your own city.

Within a 1km radius of my place, I can see Matthew Del Degan’s Love Bots and Philip Cote’s indigenous thunderbird. For free. Anytime, rain or shine. There are entire narratives drawn on traffic boxes. Sometimes, just an abstract splash of colour is enough to brighten an otherwise downer day.

A mural thanking front-line workers by street artist Natalie Very B in Parkdale, Toronto.
Art by Natalie Very B.

Almost every time I go for a walk, I see something new. Like a real rotating art gallery collection. Just yesterday I spotted this bright red tribute to front-line workers, a new addition to Noble Street.

The city’s art galleries are opening again, with distancing protocols. You can take your car for an expensive drive-in Van Gogh experience. But for now, I’m sticking to the streets.

Do you have a favourite mural or artwork in your neighbourhood? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.